County pushes for property tax to fund public transit
Columbia County voters will have the chance to vote later this year on a potential permanent property tax to fund public transit.
City councils for Scappoose, St. Helens, Rainier, Vernonia, Clatskanie and Columbia City voted to include their cities in a service district if voters approve it in November. Prescott, with approximately 50 residents, was the only city that opted not to join.
If voters approve the service district, property owners will pay an annual tax of 18 cents per $1,000 assessed property value to fund Columbia County Rider. For a house assessed at $200,000, the owner would pay $36 annually.
CC Rider has long lacked stable program funding, instead relying primarily on state and federal grants. Earlier this year, CC Rider cut services by more than 40%, according to Todd Wood, transit administrator for CC Rider. Creating a service district would allow CC Rider to avoid more service cuts and potentially add more service.
Without a service district, Wood said more cuts will come in January, hitting CC Rider's most popular services.
"Our funding is still short versus expenses. We didn't cut as much as we really needed to," Wood said.
CC Rider's most popular bus lines run between St. Helens and Portland, between St. Helens and PCC Rock Creek Campus, and through St. Helens and Scappoose, totaling an average of almost 250 rides per day. Routes from St. Helens to Longview, Washington, and Vernonia to Hillsboro run twice a day and only carry a few riders. Rides cost between $2 and $7.
In addition to the bus lines with set stops, CC Rider provides Dial-a-Ride, which is door-to-door service for elderly and disabled residents. Dial-a-Ride is the most needed but most expensive service CC Rider provides, according to Wood. Dispatchers have to turn away dozens of requests daily for Dial-a-Ride service, which takes riders to medical appointments, errands or social visits.
"In some cases, some of these people only get out of the house one day a week, and it's because they're able to utilize our service. It's heartbreaking to not be able to fill that ride," Wood said at an April transit advisory committee meeting.
Half of Dial-a-Ride services are for medical needs, but only half of those are paid for by Medicaid, Wood explained. If Dial-a-Ride services were cut, users who have their rides covered by Medicaid could still use other medical transport providers.
"Our service is actually more important for those who don't have that Medicaid coverage because they are generally in greater need of the ride as no other entity will provide them service for an affordable fee," Wood wrote in an email to the Spotlight.
After county commissioners voted on Feb. 27 to allow county staff to prepare the ballot measure, commissioners and Wood began visiting city councils to ask for approval to join the service district. "The bottom line is we're not going to let that happen," Commissioner Henry Heimuller said at a May meeting in regards to the service district potentially not passing.
In a letter to cities dated April 25, Wood wrote that the potential tax "would allow us to rebuild our services back to a level before the most recent cuts, and give us the money needed for grant matches, expansion, as well as capital improvements such as bus stops, shelters and new buses to replace our aging fleet."
From a list provided by CC Rider, the six neighboring and similar transit systems all receive funding from property or payroll taxes. CC Rider, while serving the largest population area, is the only system that does not receive dedicated tax funds. The proposed property tax would bring CC Rider's annual revenue in line with comparable transit providers.
By forming a service district, as opposed to a special district, CC Rider will stay under the management of the county and board of commissioners.
After CC Rider drivers unionized last year with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757, the contractor MTR Western, which provides staffing, terminated its existing contract with CC Rider and negotiated a new contract for a 45% increase in costs.
The contract between MTR Western and CC Rider drivers will bring drivers up to a "living wage," Wood said.
Rising costs for personnel, problems arising from aging busses, and fuel costs have brought an increase in expenses that haven't been met with an increase in funding, Wood told city councils. CC Rider is continually borrowing and repaying funds from the county.
Visibly unoccupied busses have been a concern for taxpayers who aren't interested in paying to have empty busses drive around the county.
Wood, who worked at Tri-Met prior to joining CC Rider in May 2018, has overseen updated evaluations of bus ridership and routes. Strategic cuts to existing lines have consolidated ridership from busses that are frequently carrying only a few passengers, but significant cuts have meant commuters often can't rely on bus service for daily service.